★★★★☆ This beautifully conceived interactive installation is an act of remembrance and of gentle protest.

Queen’s Theatre, Adelaide
March 4, 2017

In 2011, a few months after the beginning of the Syrian uprising, Tania El Khoury saw an image of a Syrian woman digging a grave for her son in the garden of her home.

Unearthing stories in Gardens Speak. Photograph © Jessi Hunniford

El Khoury, a Lebanese-British artist who works between Beirut and London, discovered that there were similar backyard burials happening all over Syria, as families and friends interred the bodies of activists and protestors in private gardens. The domestic burials were a way to protect living relatives, for the Asad regime had begun targeting funerals. It was also a way to protect the stories of the victims, because some families were begin forced to sign documents that exonerated the regime by falsifying details as to how their loved ones had died.

El Khoury gives 10 such victims their voice back in Gardens Speak, a beautifully conceived interactive sound installation, which premiered in 2014 and which is now being performed at the Adelaide Festival. It contains the oral histories of 10 ordinary Syrians killed during the first two years of the Syrian uprising. Their testimonies have been carefully constructed by El Khoury with the help of the subjects’ friends and relatives. The recordings are spoken in the first person as if by the victim, in the way their families believe they would have wanted to express themselves. El Khoury has also included any audio traces that she was able to find from home videos, diaries or YouTube footage relating to each person’s story.

Set in a specially devised garden space, the piece is performed for 10 people at a time, with each member of the audience listening quietly to one of the histories. (A book is available containing the narrative text for all 10 histories in English and in Arabic.)

From the moment you arrive at the performance space, an atmosphere of calm and quiet respect is cultivated, with front of house staff speaking in low tones as they explain how the event will unfold.

Gardens Speak. Photograph © Jessi Hunniford

Asked to remove our sock and socks, and don a plastic coat, we are given a torch and a card with instructions on it along with the name (in Arabic) of one of the dead. Then we are invited to enter a dark garden with 10 tombstones and to find the grave of the person whose story we are here to bear witness to.

As voices start to whisper from beneath the earth, we kneel in front of their tombstone and dig in the dirt until we find a pillow containing a speaker, then lie down and place our head on it to hear a voice quietly sharing their history. At the end, we fill the soil in again, returning the ‘grave’ to the way we found it. On the bench where we started, we find a note pad and an invitation to write a letter to the victim, if we choose, and bury it.

The story I unearth is that Ahmad Bawwabi, a university student who was working with friends to build a new, improved education system after the schools in Aleppo were closed down by ISIS. He was shot by snipers, aged 22, on his way to conduct an educational workshop. As his friend ran from the snipers, carrying Ahmad’s bleeding body, an elderly man who saw what had happened said that Ahmad could be buried in his garden. And so it is, that his remains lie in a stranger’s garden among dead flowers and neglected plants.

As we wash the soil from our hands and feet in silence afterwards, emotions run riot as I ponder oppression, grief, mourning, the everyday acts of bravery, the families left behind, and the devastation that continues to wrack Syria. I think about Ahmad (who died at the age my youngest son is now) and the little I now know of him and wonder about his family.

Gardens Speak is an eloquently simple, ritualistic piece that puts a human face to the news stories emerging from Syria: a moving act of remembrance and gentle protest, that gives a voice to everyday victims, while offering a peaceful form of resistance to oppression wherever it might be.

Gardens Speak is at the Adelaide Festival until March 19